Ovitz's AMG leads push into theater

Despite the less than happy nature of his first legit foray — the Livent fiasco — Mike Ovitz is ready to get back in the theater business.

On Jan. 12, Ovitz’s Artists Management Group threw a party at Sala, a trendy watering hole on the Bowery, to introduce a few of its managers to many of Gotham’s hippest, youngest playwrights and dramaturgs.

The move, which was as surprising to Gotham’s legit world as it was to some of AMG’s producer-director clients, signals AMG’s interest in targeting fresh talent.

It also signifies that the ways of Hollywood are increasingly encroaching on the old-fashioned manners of the theater biz. In Hollywood it’s hardly unusual for a big director, actor or screenwriter to have both an agent and a manager these days. But playwrights have traditionally stuck with agents.

More unusually, it’s not established names with big business dealing that are being targeted by AMG and others, but smaller fry: under-30 playwrights who, in some cases, have yet to snag a Broadway, Off Broadway or even 99-seater credit.

What does it mean for the biz?

“It is such a new phenomenon, I don’t really have an opinion yet,” says Joyce Ketay of the Ketay Agency. “I want to see how it works out. I would imagine the major function is to get these playwrights film and TV work.”

Others are embracing the trend.

“We have entered into a whole slew of relationships with L.A.-based agents and managers,” says Patrick Herold of Helen Merrill Ltd. “We’ll work with you, we’ll be the theatrical expert and you be the film and TV experts and we’ll have a split commission arrangement.”

Less impressed

Agents at big companies with a strong bicoastal presence are less sanguine.

“Is the goal for the managers to work with them as playwrights or to cross them over?” asks one. “In any case, we do both things as an agency.”Indeed, crossover is definitely the managers’ game.

“There is an aggressive push right now to find, groom and hire New York playwrights,” says Hollywood manager Linne Radmin of the Radmin Co., which manages Todd Alcott, a playwright (“One Neck”) and screenwriter (“Antz”).

“It is said that playwrights can bring a fresher voice,” Radmin explains. “Lord knows, TV is not committed to a fresh voice, but certainly playwrighting is perceived in Hollywood as an interesting intellectual thing to have done. As a result there is a market niche for literary managers that certainly didn’t exist five years ago.”

Rosalie Swedlin of Industry Entertainment sought out a young playwright after reading a rave review of his one-act play in the New York Times. “We’re developing screenplays with him now,” says Swedlin, who also manages theater/TV director David Petrarca. “It’s a long-term investment. Theater agents are more accomplished in their own area. My work is about the transition, to build a film career.”

Seeking out

Often an agent will tolerate a manager sharing a client if it’s at the specific request of the client. It’s rarer for the agent to do the seeking, but some are seeing the advantages of the managers’ Hollywood clout.

“I sought out AMG for a (playwright) client who had achieved some success on TV,” says agent Jack Tantleff of Abrams Artists & Associates. “I thought he could grow into having a substantial presence in TV and felt that, at this writer’s level, a manager at AMG might be helpful because of their weight in the industry.”

Another agent is equally impressed. “You can’t deny their connections,” he says. “Even when it comes to doing a theater reading, it’s amazing what they can offer up for casting.”

At present, AMG manages nearly a dozen playwrights, including longtime Ovitz client Israel Horovitz, “Freak” writer-director David Bar Katz and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” screenwriter Kevin Murphy, whose stage musical “Reefer Madness” continues to circle Off Broadway after its initial success in L.A.

In addition, the roster includes such new legit voices as Alexandra Cunningham (“No. 11 Blue and White”) and Stephen Aldy Guirgis (“Jesus Hopped the A Train”), both repped by John Buzzetti at the Gersh Agency, as well as Jamie Pachino (“The Return of Morality”) and Doug Cooney (“Dancing Like My Father”), both repped by Nicole Graham at the Writers & Artists Agency.

Buzzetti takes it on “a case-by-case basis” with his playwrights. “I do think you sometimes need partners,” he says. “But it doesn’t make sense to hand an entire part of your client’s career over to someone else and not have anything to do with it.”

All that glitters…

The question on many minds is whether emerging dramatists will continue to write plays once they’ve tasted the more lucrative fruits of Hollywood.

The New York-based Shukat Co. has been managing theater artists exclusively since 1972, and company founder Scott Shukat is skeptical. “I can understand Hollywood managers would go after playwrights, but they’re not going to encourage them to write plays,” he says.

But the AMG guys dispute the idea that they’re planning to snap up writers and spirit them away to Hollywood.

“We’re very supportive of playwrights to continue working in the theater,” says AMG’s Drew Reed, who is New York-based. “This is where they’re cutting their teeth and excelling.”

“Mike Ovitz obviously believes in the theater,” says Reed’s L.A. counterpart, Jonathan Baruch, who briefly cites his boss’s Livent foray. “I’ve been here six times in the last three months, specifically for theater. We can actually help package theater. If we have the right writers, directors and actors that can make something go, then we’ll help out that way.”

And in a reversal of the feared legit-to-Hollywood brain drain, AMG may even be moving one of its clients, screenwriter Patricia Resnick, into legit. “We’re talking about taking her ‘Nine to Five’ movie and turning it into a Broadway musical,” says Baruch.

But that’s likely to be the exception, not the rule. And indeed a week after Baruch’s Variety interview, he called with really good news: “Stephen Aldy Guirgis just signed to do his first TV, an episode ‘The Big Apple’ on CBS.”

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